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25 Jun 2008 : Column 352

Hazel Blears: I intend to finish shortly, but I will give way to the hon. Lady, as she has not intervened before. Before I do, though, I want to say that the new proposals, taken as a whole, give people the right to be heard. I am very conscious that it is often the well-organised pressure groups that can make representations to current planning inquiries. I have no problem with that, and it is right that they should be able to do so, but ordinary people and communities often find it difficult to be represented and to sustain cross-examination. For that reason, this year I have virtually doubled the amount of money going to Planning Aid, which aims to help people who do not normally have a voice. I have set out significantly increased indicative budgets for the next two years, and I want to see whether there is anything more that I can do as well. These are very important issues, about which people are genuinely concerned. I want the small voices to be heard, because very often they are squeezed out of our system. Democracy means that the less powerful people get a say, as well as the powerful organisations and groups.

I give way to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone).

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the Secretary of State, who is being very generous. Are there any criteria or guidelines on how the new consultation rights can make a difference to a proposal? Many consultations make no difference, and I am worried that people will feel that this is just a tick-box exercise, and not something that can deliver a different outcome.

Hazel Blears: The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Bill contains provisions ensuring that the IPC must give due weight to the various representations that are made. Clearly, experience from other forms of decision making shows that phrases such as “giving due weight” or “having regard to” have specific connotations. There is quite a body of evidence on the weight that should be given to the various criteria, so we should be able to deal with the problem that she has identified. The consultation process is not new; if people want to mount a challenge because their views have not been taken into account, they will know the sort of criteria and weighting that should have been applied. As I said, we can issue guidance about the kind of consultation that ought to take place, and I do not think that the hon. Lady should be too concerned.

Finally, I turn to new clause 42, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe. It would require the IPC to invite affected local authorities to produce reports on the views of their residents, the impact of a proposal on a community and its interaction with the local development plan. The legal formulation says that the commission “must have regard” to the local impact report, and that is a pretty strong way of making sure that elected local authorities have a bigger say on behalf of their communities. I entirely accept that this is a question of democracy. I want to make sure that we build in as many checks and balances as possible, but at the same time ensure that decisions are made speedily and efficiently. Local authorities will also be statutory parties to the examination. The arguments about the need for a formal role for local government have been very strong indeed, and I very much welcome new clause 42, and the supporting amendments Nos. 349 and 355.

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I urge hon. Members to reject amendment No. 327, tabled by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), which suggests that local authorities should be compelled to produce a report and that the IPC should pay for it. First, I am not in the business of compelling local authorities. I am trying to devolve more to them and give them more power, so I think that local authorities should do it for themselves. Also, the amendment does not make it clear to whom that report should go. The amendment on that matter tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe is much to be preferred. I am sure that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will be disappointed with that.

The final matter that I wish to deal with is whether a special parliamentary procedure should apply if the IPC wants to amend legislation. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) will know that the provisions on that matter are related to the amendment of some fairly elderly legislation that is often about railways and ports, and in many cases is more than 100 years old. Some of it is hybrid legislation, and on occasion the IPC may need to modify it as part of the single consents regime, which is a real prize that we want to get from the Bill. I want to ensure that it can do that.

I do not think that we should have a special parliamentary procedure, which would be cumbersome and very difficult to administer. I suspect that beneath the relevant amendments lies the fact that the hon. Lady wants to reinstate either ministerial or parliamentary decision making instead of decision making by the IPC. The amendments are an intriguing way to seek to do that. None the less, on that basis I urge hon. Members to reject them.

I want to make it clear that we shall accept new clauses 40 to 42 and amendments Nos. 340 to 355, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe.

I have spoken for far too long, and probably taken far too many interventions. I hope that I have helped Members to see the overall thrust of the Bill, and I genuinely think that we need to make significant progress on getting a better system to take forward our proposals.

I have just had sight of a letter that National Grid has sent the Leader of the Opposition about its concerns about the Opposition’s position on the Bill. It is significant because it states:

The letter asks all parties to ensure that we can proceed, for the benefit of the environment, and states:

I ask hon. Members to think extremely carefully about that.

As I have said, we shall support certain amendments, including amendments Nos. 340 to 355. I am grateful to hon. Members for their patience. I look forward to the debate and hope to be able to respond to any other matters that Members might raise.

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Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I had assumed, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we would follow the order in which Members’ amendments were so charmingly read out by your predecessor in the Chair, but I rise with great interest after an hour and a minute. I shall try to be brief, because I know that many Members wish to be heard and that we are very short of time because of the programme motion.

I shall address the amendments in roughly the same order as the Secretary of State and will consider the Government amendments first. She will be delighted to know that I do not have much objection to the amendments on national defence and security. I was pleased to learn that the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on the commencement of development have been taken up, and I commend the Government for listening to us on at least one matter. If my memory serves, he also brought up the issue of changes in the details of an application during the Committee stage, so we can achieve something.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) on the acceptance of new clause 39, and I hope that he thinks that it is worth it in the long run. On special parliamentary procedures, the right hon. Lady is absolutely correct that we are most concerned about the lack of democracy in the infrastructure planning commission. I will speak to amendment No. 5 and various consequential amendments, which would bolster the special parliamentary procedure. I will also speak briefly to amendments Nos. 55 and 292.

4 pm

There has been quite a lot of discussion about the role of national policy statements. I do not wish to be ruled out of order, given that, as the right hon. Lady rightly reminded us, there has been a vote on that in the House. However, I hope that she notes that we stick to the view that national policy statements should be subject to a substantive vote in Parliament to ensure that the British people know that Parliament has spoken and the view given is not just that of the Government. Of course, that process would allow Ministers to retain the right of decision making. I assume that everyone in the House has been taking an interest in planning, so they will know that delays in the planning system are not entirely down to Ministers being unable to make up their minds. One of the reasons there has not been much progress on infrastructure over the past 10 years could be laid at that door.

We are replacing a tortuous and cumbersome system. However, I hope that I have made it clear on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report how we could deliver decisions on infrastructure more quickly and effectively without quite such a dramatic change—without completely pulling up the plants and chucking them away. If a national policy statement is passed by the House, Ministers will be quite capable of making decisions on infrastructure developments, even though those decisions can be difficult and Ministers might not wish to stand up to defend them. We do not need an unelected and unaccountable quango to do that for us.

The right hon. Lady did not repeat the argument that the Secretary of State’s role is quasi-judicial, which the Minister for Local Government cited regularly in Committee. We accept that, but the British public’s
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perception regards the Secretary of State as the backstop of democratic accountability. One of the reasons Ministers are in post is so that they can take tough decisions, and if the British public do not like those decisions, they can readily make a decision about them at the next election. I was glad that the right hon. Lady put it on record that Parliament will not have a substantive vote on the national policy statement because there is a misapprehension outside the Chamber that it will have such a vote.

We are sad that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, who fought a good fight in Committee for retaining democracy in the planning system, has done a deal. When the concessions that he has received are analysed, they do not amount to—

Mr. Llwyd: A row of beans.

Mrs. Lait: “A mess of potage” is the other phrase that comes to mind.

I gently point out to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe that a review of the functioning of the IPC after two years of its operations will certainly take place after the next general election. We could achieve what he stood for in Committee, because after the general election, we will review the IPC out of existence. I should also put it on record that any person who applied to be a member of the IPC would have a very short contract. So I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that we can achieve his purpose for him, and that it was therefore a concession that he could easily make.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am listening with interest to the hon. Lady. Will she explain precisely what the policy of the Conservatives would be if they were to get into government after the next election? If they were to abolish the IPC, what would they put in its place? Would they go back to the existing system, with all its delays, which every business organisation in the country has opposed and rejected? Exactly what would they put in its place? They could not abolish it without putting something back.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman must have been the bane of the Whip’s life in Committee, because I seem to remember that he attended every single sitting. We went through this matter in great detail in Committee, but, because we have only 55 minutes left for this debate under the programme motion, I recommend that he go back and read the record of proceedings. He will then be able to see how we proposed to improve the delivery of infrastructure development; it is all set out in the record.

The other thing that the hon. Gentleman has kindly achieved is the introduction of location-specific national policy statements for nuclear power stations and airports. The Secretary of State said that those were the two most controversial points, but I look forward to her introducing the national policy statement on hazardous waste very soon. However, we now have location-specific NPSs for nuclear power stations and airports, which, by definition, will effectively give outline planning permission to those developments. The hon. Gentleman will remember that we discussed that matter in detail in Committee.

The problem with the Government’s proposals, and the lack of democracy involved in the proposed system, is that they lay the system open to the possibility of
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judicial review. Many people sincerely believe that the new system will deliver infrastructure more speedily, but I am afraid that they are likely to get an awful wake-up call. Many of the well-funded organisations who can afford to take court cases to judicial review have advised us that they will do so. So I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his achievements, and I hope that he thinks that it was all worth while.

However, we will push forward with amendment No. 5. I apologise for all the consequential amendments involved. Their presence just shows that we have very diligent people working on the Bill with us. I would also point out that if the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) wishes to stick to his principles, I will have no problem with that. I could not place a cigarette paper—do we still talk about cigarette papers?—between his amendment and ours, and we would be happy to support his.

We have been talking about the principles behind the IPC, and the difficulties that we foresee for it. However, we have always supported speedier infrastructure planning. We also believe wholeheartedly in the single consent regime; we just wish that it would go a bit further. We had that discussion in Committee, however, and it is not worth re-opening it here, although I am sure that the Lords will do so.

I hope that the Secretary of State understands the point behind amendment No. 292. If she does not, I apologise for not making myself clear enough. The amendment seeks to remove the right of the IPC to take into consideration everything that is “relevant and interesting”. The original Town and Country Planning Act 1947 stated that “material considerations” had to be borne in mind when reaching decisions. I have been told by my legal friends that the definition of “material consideration” was not agreed until 1970, some 23 years later. Given that the term “relevant and interesting” is possibly even looser than “material consideration”, it is not difficult to envisage yet more legal cases to define “relevant and interesting”. I urge the Secretary of State to bear it in mind that if the whole issue of “material consideration” is opened up, her wish, and our wish, for a speedier system of delivering infrastructure will almost certainly be challenged in the courts for years to come. I hope that the Secretary of State will table amendments when the Bill reaches the Lords. I make that point in the best interests of planning—I hope that she does not believe that we are playing a party political role—because “relevant and interesting” may be mired in the courts for many more years than she envisages.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I note that my hon. Friend has tabled a number of amendments on the role of the decision maker. The issue is whether the Secretary of State or the IPC makes the final decision. As the Secretary of State has made clear, the Bill prescribes certain circumstances in which she can take the final decision, but does my hon. Friend think that an application for judicial review will be almost inevitable every time the Secretary of State declines to take that decision, which will slow down the big infrastructure projects that we are seeking to speed up?

Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend makes my point for me. It is not difficult to work out that, at every stage of the process, there will be a judicial review challenge. It is a sadness for me that we in this House are working
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towards passing a Bill in which the flaws are apparent whenever we make a new point. I wish that Ministers would take that on board, because none of us wants big infrastructure decisions stuck in the system in the way that they have been for the past 10 years in particular.

The Secretary of State and the Minister for Local Government, who dealt with this in Committee, have made a great deal of the consultation that should be undertaken by applicants for development. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe has obtained an agreement, to which I have no objection, that local authorities will oversee the consultation, but that does not go far enough. Any applicant for any development—we are discussing infrastructure in the context of this Bill—should have not only consulted but resolved as many as issues as possible before submitting the application. If the hon. Gentleman thinks back, he will realise that I made that point, which is one of the ways to speed up the system, in Committee.

Many of the objections to a planning application can be resolved before they even go to inquiry. These days, the duty to consult is regarded with the deepest scepticism by the people who should participate in the consultation, largely because of the top-down planning system that the Government have imposed through housing targets. People respond to consultations in good faith, but—this is true of a planning application that I have seen in the past 10 days—the decision by the Planning Inspectorate is entirely based on the particular district council not meeting its housing targets. That decision had nothing to do with the merit of the appeal or the views of local people; it was made just because the top-down housing targets had not been met. I am sorry, but consultation is now a dirty word among people who are trying to participate in the development of their communities. We have to go further than that, and I am sorry that this draconian Government do not wish to do so.

4.15 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Lady comment on something that I have difficulty understanding? Where under the national policy statement has there been mention of something site-specific? Does she think that there will have to be a further period of consultation if and when a promoter of a particular site comes forward, or does she think that, once the NPS is in place, that will be taken to have been part of the previous consultation? Will the hon. Lady help me with that?

Mrs. Lait: I find the hon. Gentleman’s point challenging and it is part of the difficulty of having a site-specific NPS; the Government have agreed to the site-specific NPS. I hope, however, that the communities involved in such an NPS would take part in the consultation on the details at that stage. But when it came to any application to an inquiry, I hope that they would also take part in that inquiry entirely on local planning issues. That is what we need if the planning system is to be speeded up.

At present, all the planning inquiries are held up because of the long debate about the policy; that is why having a national policy statement can, by itself, take out a large chunk of time. Whoever is chairing the inquiry should ensure that it focuses entirely on local
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planning issues. That is how I hope it would work, but currently the Government are trying to implement it. I go no further than that.

Mr. Betts: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Lait: Of course. I keep mentioning the hon. Gentleman; it is only fair that I should give way to him.

Mr. Betts: I entirely agree that there should be as much consultation as possible before the application is formally lodged, because it is easiest to resolve problems at that stage. The hon. Lady must therefore surely welcome the whole of chapter 2 of the Bill; it provides a comprehensive approach to pre-application scrutiny.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point; the Bill just talks about consultation. I may be splitting hairs and I may not understand English terribly well, but to me, consultation does not mean resolution. It means only that we have to talk, not that we have to resolve. That is the key. He may well remember the debate that we had in Committee, although I do not want to repeat it because too many other people want to speak. It was about how various planning applications have been dealt with by pre-application, and how everything had been essentially resolved before it went to the inquiry.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Lady will remember the pre-legislative scrutiny stage of the Bill. We consulted many professional bodies. Did we take any of that consultation on board?

Mrs. Lait: We took quite a bit of it on board, actually.

Mr. Llwyd: Were there any changes to the Bill?

Mrs. Lait: Oh well, that is different.

Mr. Llwyd: Ah!

Mrs. Lait: But we certainly took it on board and based a number of our amendments precisely on the information given to us at that stage. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may remember that we picked up one or two suggestions that the Minister talked about during the pre-legislative scrutiny.

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